Eric Pickles and the supermodel… understanding the true value of nothing

ImageWhat have Eric Pickles and a size zero catwalk model got in common? Not a lot at first glance, but delve deeper and you’ll find that they both seek to redefine the concept of zero. Hang on a minute, surely ‘zero’ is straightforward; it means ‘nothing’, ‘zilch’, or even ‘nada’ – can it really be an ambiguous amount?

For the fashion model, the coveted size zero doesn’t (we hope) mean being invisible. In the world of catwalks and couture, zero has instead become a trendy, nonsensical tag that just means super skinny.

Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles has, by contrast, redefined ‘zero’ within construction. The target that government and industry are working towards is for all new build houses to be zero carbon by 2016. This all sounds admirable and simple, but given the slippery, flexible qualities of zero, what will it actually mean in practice?

A long while back, the idea that the homes themselves would be zero carbon was scrapped as being unworkable and uneconomic. Instead, the carbon neutral rating would come from offsite ‘allowable solutions’. It then took a couple of years for Government, working with the Zero Carbon Hub, to define what these alternatives could include.

The definition of these ‘allowable solutions’ has just been made public. They include paying a third party to deliver carbon abatement services elsewhere, for example retrofitting older properties with low-carbon technology. Green lobbyists fear that these offsite alternatives will be impossible to measure and certainly won’t keep mitigating carbon for the lifespan of the new properties.

Yes, we need to build affordable housing in a cost-effective way, but the truly zero carbon home is destined to remain an entertaining project on Grand Designs unless we commit to it on a wider scale. Only then will market forces respond and make it economically viable.

It is undeniably cheaper to build houses that leak energy, but it doesn’t make financial sense over the lifetime of the building. The construction industry is bound to take a short-sighted view – the house isn’t their problem as soon as it is sold.

The scary backdrop to all this is the figures recently released by the Communities and Local Government Department. These show that the energy efficiency ratings of the average new home in England have dropped from last year. So we did it better in 2012 – this reveals that it isn’t the technology holding us back, it is the will from the construction industry and the direction set by government.

Let’s not forget that nearly 30 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the UK are from family homes. It’s clear that the situation needs to improve, not worsen. Improving older homes is a vital part of this, but new builds should set the gold standard.

We don’t need size zero models and we don’t need flabby planning laws that undermine a fantastic concept. We are capable of zero carbon homes, but first we need to understand the true value of nothing.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 18th October 2013. Follow Kate on Twitter @kateblincoe.

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